Tramping – A New Zealand History, by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean (my thoughts)

Until now there’s been a major omission in publications about tramping. So far all we’ve seen are route guides, narratives or yarns, tourism guides, diaries, local histories, blogs and other websites, biographies and autobiographies, newspaper articles, safety manuals, fiction, club newsletters and journals, “best of” publications of journals, hut book rants about others leaving rubbish behind, histories of topics which are associated with tramping, collections of scenic photographs, dramatic re-creations for television, archived descriptions of accidents, poetry, commercial magazines, calendars, promotional material, and personal accounts illustrated with humorous comic imagery.

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It’s no wonder that someone has finally attempted to exploit the seriously under-represented genre of comprehensive authoritative histories about tramping in the form of large coffee table books. The result is Chris Maclean’s and Shaun Barnett’s Tramping – A New Zealand History.

I first heard of this book shortly before a seminar given by the authors in September 2013. I attended the seminar, and left with optimism. A year later, the book was released. It displays a Mountain Mule and a pair of old boots on the cover. The book weighs 2.5 kg.

Below are my thoughts, and I’ve tried really hard to keep these thoughts shorter than the book itself. If you’re interested, some alternative sources of info are the book’s official Facebook page, an interview by Kim Hill with the authors that was broadcast on Radio NZ, a book extract published in the NZ Herald, or brief reviews on NZ Bush Adventures, Beatties Book Blog, the Otago Daily Times, and Wild Magazine.

The background

Chris Maclean and Shaun Barnett are well suited for attempting a book like this. Each is already an accomplished author who can research, write and work with other parties to produce an effective and readable book. Both have considerable tramping experience, plus a wide variety of domain knowledge and useful contacts between them.

Chris Maclean, an historian based in the Wellington region, will be most well known to Wellington-based trampers as author of his 1994 history of the Tararuas, titled Tararua: Story of a Mountain Range, but he’s authored a whole collection of well researched histories. More recently he researched and authored Stag Spooner: Wild Man from the Bush, about a young government deer culler of the 1940s who left behind fascinating diary.

Shaun Barnett has extensive tramping experience, has authored many tramping guides, and is a highly skilled photographer. He’s also served as editor of the Federated Mountain Clubs Bulletin, and Wilderness Magazine. Recently prior to this book, he collaborated with Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint on Shelter From The Storm, a comprehensive history of back-country huts in New Zealand.

About the book

Tramping – A New Zealand History was released in October 2014 by Craig Potton Publishing, a company which is no stranger to publishing material that relates to outdoor recreation. It officially retails for $69.99, but can be found at lower prices by shopping around. It has 367 numbered pages. These include a comprehensive index, as well as screeds of references for each chapter via endnotes, then via a comprehensive bibliography. There’s also a five page glossary of New Zealand tramping terminology. The main content of the book uses about 300 pages, including many large photographs but with no shortage of text to flow well alongside them. Text is printed on high quality glossy paper. It’s well edited, with few typographical errors to distract from easy readability. The book weighs 2.5 kg.

The book has thirteen main chapters, plus an introduction. Chapters fall roughly chronologically, overlapping where their nominated topics overlap, except for chapter one which aims to describe “The Tramping Experience” without specific historic references. Remaining chapters are split into three identifiable phases of tramping’s history. These are titled Walking With A Purpose, Traditional Tramping, and Wilderness To Great Walks. The entire chronology covers the approximate time from the mid 19th century through to modern times. The book weighs 2.5 kg.

Insets, with distinct topics, are injected at regular intervals through the book, usually a couple per chapter. Each inset contains a short read of roughly 2 to 4 pages at a time, usually describing a nominated topic which might not have fitted nicely into the chronology, or a representative example of something. These insets break flow with the surrounding content. For me this was not a distraction, and in fact there were very few distractions from a smooth, continuous read of an interesting topic. Also, the book weighs 2.5 kg.

A speedy summary

It’d be hard to document the history of something described by such a distinctly New Zealand word as “tramping” without first clarifying what is meant by the word. Not just in modern times, either, but through the entire time during which its meaning has evolved. The authors appropriately tackle this challenge early, during the book’s introduction, setting the scope for the upcoming chapters. It’s not a superficial task to describe this meaning, but they generally settle on a meaning that suggests recreational travel by foot in New Zealand’s back-country environment. I couldn’t fairly represent the entire explanation into a single paragraph here, so I won’t.

Chapter one, titled The Tramping Experience, examines what tramping means to people today. Maybe it’s being solo, being with others, being isolated, seeking independence and self-reliance from society, carrying a heavy pack, visiting a hut, taking pride in any number of achievements, and so on. It sets the scene for the reader in a way which many will emotionally identify with. Chapters two to five (themed as Walking With A Purpose) then take a giant leap backwards to the 19th century. These pages consider the context of how people entered the hills and the back-country, and at times traversed parts of an untamed New Zealand through necessity, sometimes during a civil war, and before recreational reasons was a practical option for most. There’s emphasis on achievements and expeditions of Maori, missionaries, gold prospectors, surveyors and soldiers.

During this period there’s little happening in the way of recreation, and so these are not necessarily topics with which many modern trampers would closely relate, but they’re significant for understanding the gradual evolution of activities into modern recreational tramping. The authors make a strong case that what we consider to be tramping didn’t simply spring out of a newspaper ad in 1919 that announced formation of the Tararua Tramping Club, as is sometimes claimed.

Chapter five is the first to seriously describe people entering the hills for recreation, symbolising a revolution in how a significant portion of New Zealanders had begun to see their back yard as something to be appreciated rather than conquered. From here onwards, the narration leads into more recognisable descriptions of recreation through government-operated tourism resorts and walks, and the beginnings of attempts by people to establish outdoor recreation clubs.

The Traditional Tramping theme covers chapters six through ten, where the authors begin to seriously describe a tramping experience with which many readers will be more familiar. Notably, this period includes the structuring of outdoor recreation into clubs, especially in cities. It describes a post-war environment, with many soldiers returning from overseas wartime horrors, often wanting to enter the hills for solace and exploration of a newly identifiable homeland.

The formation and early achievements of the Tararua Tramping Club, notably the first club known to use the word “tramping” in its name, receives deserved attention in this period, as do several other representative clubs and the forthcoming formation of Federated Mountain Clubs to help combine and represent their common interests.

Chapters nine and ten then examine the increased enthusiasm of the State in the evolution of the back-country throughout the mid-20th century. They point out the slightly bizarre competition between two branches of same government which, combined with lobbying from recreational users, resulted in a new wave of building back-country tracks and huts available for recreation between National Parks and Forest Parks.

In the Wilderness to Great Walks section, from chapters eleven to thirteen, the authors examine the concept of “wilderness”, and the conflict between trying to get away from civilisation yet building so many facilities to assist with doing so. Consequentially, the chapters look at New Zealand’s own gazetted Wilderness Areas and Remote Experience Zones, as places of isolation.

Also covered is the formation of the modern Department of Conservation, a formalised introduction of user pays for huts, the development of a new brand of tourism-targeted “Great Walks”, followed by an immense jump in the number of international tourists visiting New Zealand with some form of tramping in mind.

The final pages of the text describe Te Araroa, “the long pathway” with a goal to connect both ends of the country with a walking trail, and probably one of the most recent evolutions of walking at the time of publication.

Possible criticisms

It’s difficult to express any negative sentiments here, and I’m struggling to think of some. I truly enjoyed the book, and would highly recommend it, but I don’t think it’d be a worthwhile review if I didn’t try to be constructive. So, let’s try…

The weight thing: Have I mentioned, yet, that this book weighs in at 2.5 kilograms? Yes, it’s true. This book will pull you down more than the total weight of a Macpac Minaret Tramping Tent which comfortably protects two people on the tops in a reasonably strong blizzard. I’d suspect the high grade of glossy page wouldn’t absorb as much water as the tent during an overnight saturation, but I haven’t tested it, so we’ll leave that one up in the air.

Nevertheless, it’s marginally less heavy than the 2.7 kg Shelter From The Storm book, which Shaun Barnett recently co-authored prior to this book. If you’re trying to decide between which of these two books to take with you into the hills for a read, and everything else being equal, take Tramping History and you’ll save 200 grams.

I also bring this up, though, because the weight was my first concrete impression. The book arrived in the mail, and after a brief flick through, I had to schedule time in my life to read it in places other than lazing around on the couch. Maybe it’s the yuppie in me speaking, but in future I think it’d be great to see this type of publication also available as an eBook. I realise that it’s heavy on layout and high quality photographs, but eBook reading technology is rapidly evolving and may soon be able to represent it well.

If you’re in the target audience then the weight will probably be of little bother. You’ll figure it out, because reading the book is worth it. For me at least, I found the content more than enough to make up for the inconvenience.

Authoritative or not: One thing I noticed, especially towards the end when describing what are almost current events, the authors make a few statements which don’t fit the tone of the rest of the book. An example of this occurs on page 286, with comments on recent Department of Conservation funding cuts that amount to a statement of opinion which might easily be challenged:

Yet between 2008 and 2013 the government cut DOC funding, seemingly oblivious to the additional demands resulting from growing tourism. Until recently, New Zealand has been well served by far-sighted planning that enabled DOC to accommodate greatly increased use of the backcountry. But this cannot continue without adequate resources and a holistic overview of the consequences of relentless promotion. A government that neglects to coordinate tourism with its impact on the conservation estate risks killing the golden goose.

I don’t wholly disagree with this statement, but I found it an inconsistent inclusion given the format of the rest of the book. It’s a political statement about the current day government, direct from the authors. There’s probably support amongst much of the outdoor community, but it’s also not verified nor agreed upon by everyone. Other than the occasional sidestep such as this, I think most of the book could be regarded as an authoritative history of tramping, by which I mean a history which few people are likely to challenge.

Other impressions

Interesting things: There are gems of information throughout. For example, I’d always heard the simplified explanations of how Tongariro National Park was simply gifted by Ngati Tuwharetoa “to all New Zealanders”, but hadn’t been aware of the concern which drove this, that the land might otherwise have been surveyed, divided and sold to private owners.

Women in tramping: Worthy of mention is just how much coverage the authors attribute to women’s role in the hills alongside men, especially from the early parts of the 20th century. While acknowledging that things still weren’t perfect, many examples are cited of women being on a more equal footing during tramping activities than in everyday society, yet these same women then had to be negatively judged by a wider society which saw the mixture of men and women in such recreation as very improper. There’s probably easily enough topical material to produce a more specialised and interesting history on women in tramping, if anyone wished to try some day.

Influence from overseas: The authors also document strong correlations between trends within New Zealand, and events overseas, notably with the influence of the USA’s National Parks movement in formation and protection of parks in New Zealand, and also protest action. Several convincing examples are given as to how the success of public protest action overseas, such as that inspired by Martin Luther King, also encouraged people in New Zealand to realise that they could influence government policy by protesting for clear access rights to the Milford Track in the 1960s, rallying against the Lake Manapouri Hydro Scheme, and opposing mining of the Red Hills in South Westland.

Emphasis on clubs: I did wonder if the significance of clubs had been over-emphasised, especially in the region of chapters six and seven, which frame the mid 20th century of tramping as being heavily dominated by clubs. This is consistent with other descriptions I’ve heard of the period, but I’m also aware that there’s evidence of at least a few independent groups and individuals, if not more, visiting the hills during that period. For example, every so often there’s an historic newspaper article about a person being rescued without clear connection to a club. Could it really be that others are out doing things, but were simply rendered invisible by not writing down their achievements with the same dedication as a typical tramping club secretary?

I quizzed the authors of their thoughts on this after a recent talk, and was reassured that they think there’s good reason to believe that clubs were dominant during the early to mid 20th century, for at least a couple of reasons. (1) Transport to most of the necessary start and end points was hard to find, especially during war and depression eras, and (2) simply obtaining information was nowhere near as easy as it is in today’s information age. Joining with clubs would typically be the easiest way to get maps and route guides and advice, and generally learn about how to do things. Even people who went tramping independently would often have affiliation with or rely on the resources of tramping clubs.

Everyone knows everyone: An outcome I hadn’t expected from reading this book, as I flicked through its pages, was just how many familiar names I’d recognise, especially in the acknowledgements and references. Unlike some topics, tramping’s history isn’t dominated by fantastical giants and individual accomplishments. It’s at least as much about relatively regular people coming together, simply doing recreational stuff which interests them, with a result that’s shaped a whole culture.

As mentioned earlier, commentry on tramping clubs dominates certain parts of the history that’s presented. Consistent with this, when you look inside the book’s covers you’ll find an array of local tramping club logos from long-standing clubs throughout New Zealand. If you happen to be associated with one or more of these clubs, then seeing its logo might evoke some kind of silent pride of being associated with the history. Maybe you’ll even buy the book, and maybe this was an intention of the publisher, but it’s probably also meant to be an acknowledgement of the large role with which what are often relatively small clubs, groups and societies of relatively ordinary people have played in tramping’s history.

Conclusion

I had high expectations given the authors, and I don’t feel I was let down. This book is a rewarding read, especially if you enjoy tramping. I think it also has significance of being a relatively authoritative publication about tramping, and probably the only modern one.

Tramping – A New Zealand History is not the first book to cover most of its material, but it doesn’t try to be. Even in recent times, and often from the same authors, we’ve seen narrative introspective histories like Mark Pickering’s A Tramper’s Journey, regional histories which cover much about tramping like Chris Maclean’s Tararua: Story of a Mountain Range, and related topical histories that naturally lead into tramping and related culture like Mark Pickering’s Huts: Untold stories from back-country New Zealand and Shelter From The Storm by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint.

This book forges its place by connecting together countless sources into a clear chronological narrative that can be digested as a coherent timeline. Now that it’s been published it can be referenced, built on, criticised or corrected if there’s a reason to do so. In future if you happen to read a local history, or maybe even just that comic, then it might make slightly more sense against this foundation of tramping in New Zealand as a whole.

Table of contents

  • Introduction: A Tramper’s Paradise (page 8)
    • Evolution of the term ‘Tramping’
  • Chapter One: The Tramping Experience (page 22)
    • Going Solo at Nelson Lakes
    • Tramping Literature

Walking With A Purpose

  • Chapter Two: Nature’s Rough Productions (page 44)
    • Access
    • St James Walkway
  • Chapter Three: Walking With A Purpose (page 62)
    • Colenso’s 1840s Crossings of the Ruahine Range
    • Track Markers
  • Chapter Four: New Country (page 76)
    • Maps for Trampers
    • The Wangapeka Track
  • Chapter Five: Exploring Maoriland (page 92)
    • Alys Lowth on the Milford Track
    • Tongariro—the National Park Concept Arrives in New Zealand

Traditional Tramping

  • Chapter Six: The Advent of Organised Recreation (page 116)
    • Death on the Southern Crossing
    • 1920s Tramping Gear
  • Chapter Seven: Hard Times (page 142)
    • Holloway’s Olivine Explorations
    • Nude Tramping
    • Tramps and Swaggers
  • Chapter Eight: War and Revival (page 166)
    • Packs, Boots and Food
    • Harper Pass and the Three Passes Tracks
  • Chapter Nine: The Return of the State (page 188)
    • River Crossing
    • Egmont and Tongariro National Parks
  • Chapter Ten: The Golden Years (page 212)
    • Search and Rescue
    • ‘High Summer on the Heaphy Track’

Wilderness To Great Walks

  • Chapter Eleven: The Elusive Wilderness (page 238)
    • New Zealand Outdoor Gear
    • Traversing the Southern Alps
  • Chapter Twelve: Unity Of Control (page 260)
    • Love and Loss in the Hills
    • The Routeburn Track
  • Chapter Thirteen: Back To The Future (page 280)
    • Women Trampers
    • Te Araroa
  • Glossary Of Tramping Terminology (page 302)
  • Endnotes (page 308)
  • Bibliography (page 336)
  • Acknowledgements (page 354)
  • Index (page 356)
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